Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Russians Flee Tuva as Law Decays, Economy Collapses and Separatism Intensifies, Znak Journalist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 1 – Most of the time, Tuva remains wrapped in a fox of exoticism, and today gets the attention of Russians only when their defense minister who comes from there is mentioned or when statistics show that it leads the Russian Federation in unemployment – more than 50 percent by most accounts – and serious crimes.

            But a new survey of conditions there by Znak journalist Nikita Telizhenko highlights several more serious problems: the legal system has almost completely broken down, Russians and their language have been reduced to second or third-class status, and separatism, including demands for the return of territory from neighboring regions, is on the rise.

            His 3300-word report suggests that the only way most Tuvans can make ends meet is by engaging in the illegal growth and sale of drugs or taking part in criminal rackets, both of which remain beyond the declining power of the authorities to regulate let alone stamp out (

            Russians who used to form a third of the republic’s capital, Kyzyl, now have been reduced to a much smaller share, not only because people there are actively hostile to them but because the courts ensure that when a Russian commits a crime, he or she gets the maximum sentence, and when a Russian interacts with a Tuvan, he or she must speak Tuvan or be ignored.

            Tuvans openly say, Telizhenko reports, that they don’t like Russians who are living on Tuvan lands, and that attitude has intensified in the cities where Tuvans from rural areas where there never were any Russians have moved into urban areas and have brought their local xenophobic attitudes with them.

            Tuvans try to avoid having contacts with Russians and so Russians not surprisingly want to leave, but they face an obstacle few talk about: when a Russian wants to leave, no one will buy his or her property because Tuvans assume that once the Russian in question is gone, they can simply take it for free.

            As far as the Russian language is concerned, local lawyer Sergey Konviz, it is “finished.” The population and officials “speak only Tuvan,” even and perhaps especially when they in fact know Russian to demonstrate their commitment to the nation. They treat Koreans, Kyrgyz, and Mongols far better than they treat Russians.

            Nationalism increased in the late 1980s as it did in many non-Russian parts of the former Soviet Union, although Tuvans never went so far as to participate in the so-called “parade of sovereignties.” But now, things are really getting out of hand. Russians are being forced out, and Tuva is making territorial demands on Krasnoyarsk Kray and Irkutsk Oblast.

            More worrisome, many Tuvans inside what passes for the government but which in fact is a combination of the criminal world and state institutions, the lawyer continues, now openly aspire to independence from Moscow and believe that they are “already close to the achievement of their plans” in that regard.

            Tuvan officials with whom Telizhenko spoke play down these factors, insisting that Tuvans and Russians do get along and that the problems the republic faces are simply “a caricature” of the problems that all regions and republics in the Russian Federation currently face.

            But even they admit that the state as such is disintegrating and that there are no police posts in many parts of the republic. Instead, local clans and criminal groups control the situation, and everyone knows who is really in charge. All this, the Znak journalist says, gives one the feeling that one is on the outskirts of a dying empire.

            “Being in the center of Kyzyrl,” Telizhenko says, he “thought about needing to look to the roof of the administration building and check if there is a Russian flag there. Yes, it was there, but somehow appeared inappropriate and secondary. In its place could have flown a Chinese, Mongolian or Hungarian one.”

            “And suddenly I realized,” he concludes, “that such a thought, to look up and check the flag while being in a city of Russia had come to me for the first time.”

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